Birth is work. It’s also a process. Penny Simkin, a renowned birth worker, shares that birthing individuals need the three R’s – Relaxation, Rhythm, and Ritual – to support them through their birth and labor experiences. These Breathing for Birth rhythms and rituals offer a way to ease discomfort, allow for greater relaxation in the body, and serve as a mechanism to guide you throughout your birth experience, whether it’s at home, in a hospital, with or without medication.
One of the most beautiful practices to establish now, during pregnancy, is breathwork – i.e., learning to breath for birth. Why is it important to pay attention to the breath?
- Breathwork and breathing techniques calm the body’s nervous system, decreasing the amount of stress hormones prevalent in the body and increasing the levels of beta-endorphin (a natural pain reliever) and oxytocin (the labor and love hormone).
- Breathwork relaxes the jaw, throat, shoulders during labor, which is important because the jaw reflects the state of the pelvic floor. A relaxed jaw, throat, and shoulders mean a relaxed pelvic floor. A tightened one means the pelvic floor is also clenching.
- Breathwork supports oxygenation of the entire body, ensuring you and your baby are getting enough oxygen and breath (rather than hyperventilating or taking short, shallow breaths).
- Breathwork distracts the mind from sensation and/or pain that might be present with contractions by establishing a ritual and rhythm that the mind can focus on during labor (and remember, even if you decide to get an epidural, at some point, you’ll feel contractions unless you have a scheduled cesarean).
It’s important to learn these breathing techniques now and then to share them with your partner and/or birth doula so that they can remind you of the practices during your birth. One of my strongest birth memories is of my husband hanging over the edge of the birth tub as I soaked, looking in my eyes and reminding me how to breathe, because yes…at some point, even the most seasoned practitioners need loving support and guidance during birth.
Let’s cover three breathing techniques that you can start practicing right now:
Sama Vritti Pranayama [Equal Part Breath] – Sama Vritti translates to equal turning breath, also known as equal part breath. To practice, find a comfortable seated position or practice reclined (with the upper back elevated for pregnancy). Begin to breathe in through the nose to a count of 4 – Slowly inhale for 1 – 2 – 3- 4. Then, slowly exhale through the nose to a count of 4 – Exhale gently for 1 – 2 – 3 – 4. Practice for 2-5 minutes. You may also increase your count to inhaling for 6: exhaling for 6 or inhaling 8: exhaling 8. The key is to go slowly and breathe fully.
Bhramari Pranayama [Buzzing Bee Breath] – With Bhramari, you’ll literally hum to generate the sound of a buzzing bee. This breath is wonderful for dispelling anxiety, fear, and overwhelm and also brings a sense of peace and focus to the mind. While there are several methods to practice Bhramari, we can start with the simplest and most effective. To practice, find a comfortable seated position, practice reclined (with the upper back elevated for pregnancy) or on the left side. Take a full inhale. On the exhale, keep the lips sealed and begin to hum the entire length of your exhale, feeling the sound come from deep in the belly. As you get more comfortable, you might also concentrate on the center of the forehead (the third eye) as you hum. Try humming softly, loudly, or somewhere in between. Take slow, full inhales and elongate the exhale as you hum. Notice the jaw relaxing and the forehead relaxing as you practice. Try 4-5 times before taking a break.
Horse Lips – There isn’t a fancy Sanskrit name for this one! Horse lips relaxes the jaw and the shoulders by fluttering the lips, which relaxes the pelvic floor. You will also be elongating the exhalation, promoting further relaxation in the body. To practice, find a comfortable seated position or practice reclined (with the upper back elevated for pregnancy) or on the left side. You might even want to practice standing up. Take a full inhale. On the exhale, flutter the lips for the entire length of the exhalation. This is also known as “blowing raspberries.” Next, take slow inhales and deep, slow exhales to flutter the lips. Try for a minute or two.
Again, these breathing techniques are perfect to practice during pregnancy and will be beautiful supports during labor. There are certainly more breathing techniques and coping mechanisms to practice for birth. Other coping mechanisms include movement, water, touch and massage, mantra, and more. Take a few moments in your day to practice these breathing techniques, generate some muscle and bodily memory of them, and then teach them to your partner/doula. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments.
Leanne Matullo is a Registered Prenatal Yoga Teacher (R-PYT), Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT), Yoga Therapy practitioner with a specialization in Perinatal Care, Infant/Toddler Sleep Consultant, and Birth Doula. She is also a Flourish Fund Provider.